Largest Norman keep made smaller

I was recently looking at some microscale Lego architecture and got to wondering about how well I could reproduce Colchester Castle at a really tiny size. Answer: It loses a lot in the translation, but I’m enjoying doing it anyway. Also answer: it got to be more complicated than that.

See, back around 60 AD, the Romans who had recently invaded England build a temple dedicated to the late emperor Claudius at the town they called Camulodunum. Evidently they dug down for the foundation, piled up sand in two long piles down the middle, and built the foundation with a pair of arched vaults filled with the sand. The temple they built on top was destroyed in Boudicca’s revolt and rebuilt when the Romans regained control. Fast forward a thousand years. William the Conqueror takes over England and thinks, “Huh, that was easy. I should make it harder” and orders, among other things, a castle to be built at what’s by then called Colchester. The temple is ruined but the foundation is still perfectly good, so they build on that, and it’s a big foundation so they end up with the largest Norman keep ever built in England.

More time passes and the castle deteriorates. Evidently it never actually saw any military action. By 1600 it’s in bad shape but parts of it are still in use as the Essex County gaol, or jail as we Americans would spell it. In 1627 Thomas Holmes is appointed gaolkeeper. A few years later his son John goes to Plymouth Colony where he has two sons and numerous grandchildren and so on until he now has lots of descendants including me. Back in Colchester, in 1683 one John Wheely is licensed to demolish the castle for building materials. He makes a start on it, tunnels into the foundation and discovers the vaults, empties out the sand looking for nonexistent treasure, and goes bankrupt. Other owners then come and go, making  renovations and modifications. At one point, early twentieth century I think, cracks in the vault walls are noticed, engineers come in and have a look and suck in air through their teeth, and they add some new load bearing walls. Seems removing the sand was not the best of ideas. The Borough of Colchester buys the castle in the 1920s, it’s roofed over in the 1930s, and today it houses a museum.

I made an initial design in Lego based on the modern form of the castle, then said, hm, can I make it smaller? And I did: it fit within 8 by 8 studs or 2.5 inches square. Then it occurred to me I could put it on a base that includes arched pieces to represent the Roman vaults. Then it occurred to me I could use the same base under a model of the Roman temple. And then, of course, it seemed to make sense to design a third model of the castle as it was when it completed in the twelfth century. All designed for the same base. I kind of like the idea that, just like the actual buildings, all three models are built on literally the same foundation. The front section (or the back) is removable to show off the vaulted foundation. You’ll have to imagine the sand.

The Romans seem not to have taken any steps to preserve the temple’s blueprints or have photographs of it taken, and William did the same with his castle, so we don’t actually know what exactly either looked like. People even disagree on how many storeys the castle had originally (these days it’s two). And of course the translation from reality to Lego microscale models (by a not particularly skilled designer) loses something, so they’re crude representations of guesses of what the buildings looked like. I based the temple on the Wikipedia article, the museum’s modelthis picture of the Temple of Venus Genetrix, and on, erm, another Lego model of it — one that’s a big bigger. Actually it’s friggin enormous. And gorgeous. And here, by contrast, is mine.

The cella should really have a front wall with a door, and the column arrangement doesn’t match my sources. I did what I could with what I could get.

Inside there’s a colossal statue of Claudius, where by “colossal” I mean “microfig”.


The ancient castle is based on this artist’s impression and a slightly different version shown as a picture in the book I bought from the museum’s gift shop and as a model in the museum.

The modern castle is based on photos (including my own) and on Google Maps’ 3D model.

That Roman vaulted foundation (now sand free) is still there.

As for what the castle looked like in 1627, well, that’d really be guesswork. I don’t think there are any trustworthy drawings from that time. Perhaps not too much different from the original appearance other than general condition. Anyway, not worth a fourth model.

If you want to make your own, instructions are up at Rebrickable:


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